Friday, January 9, 2004

The group of serious-looking twentysomethings and college students meeting in the ballroom of the Wyndham City Center Hotel near Dupont Circle does not look like a church in utero, but starting at 5 p.m. tomorrow, “Grace DC” becomes the District’s newest church.

Its first official service — after several years of “unofficial” gatherings — will include a yuppie demographic that traditionally avoids religious commitment: the single and the metropolitan. Seventy percent of Grace’s members are young professionals under 30.

Grace DC is part of an effort by an Atlanta-based Presbyterian denomination to begin a network of hip, theologically conservative churches for young urban professionals in the hearts of America’s cities.

Last week, its pastor, the Rev. Glenn Hoburg, 38, had to instruct some of his new members on how to behave during a benediction.

“Keep your eyes open,” he said. “This is a blessing, not a prayer.”

Begun in a Capitol Hill living room in April 2001, the fledgling church doubled to more than 100 members when it shifted quarters in September to a room at the Washington Club off Dupont Circle in Northwest. Attendance now hovers between 120 and 180, and 60 persons have signed up to be charter members.

“It’s part of a movement to plant churches in cosmopolitan, world-class cities,” said the Rev. Stephen Um, whose CityLife Church in Boston has 300 members after 23 months. “We reach out primarily to post-everything professional urbanites and bohemians.”

The founding denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), itself is only 30 years old, with 311,817 members. One of its established congregations, McLean Presbyterian in Fairfax County, helped found Grace DC.

The PCA adheres to Calvinistic and Reformed traditions, including belief in the infallibility of the Bible, predestination and the governing of a church by all-male “presbyters,” or elders. Chief among its doctrines is that of grace, or what God has done for sinful people.

Whereas the PCA’s profile was largely white, Southern and couples with families, church officials knew they had to do serious retooling to reach the singles, immigrants and childless couples who frequent most cities.

“Traditional churches tend to emphasize programs and buildings, but we emphasize people and community,” Mr. Um said.

Many in this new breed of PCA church rent, not own, their buildings, he said, partly because its congregations quickly outgrow their quarters.

The concept originiated with the Rev. Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister who in 1989 founded Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. It is now at 3,000 members, 80 percent of whom are single, meeting at Hunter College on the Upper West Side.

Evangelical Christians, Mr. Keller realized, by and large were not conversant with the educational, medical, media, artistic and cultural institutions that surround them in any large city. Thus, most cities had taken on a secularized, post-Christian, postmodern spiritual dynamic.

“These churches want to embrace the city,” said Ted Powers, the PCA’s planting coordinator. “We don’t want to have a posture against this big, bad city. We wish to [affect] the people who make it tick.”

Unlike the highly charismatic 1970s vintage churches that brought a whole generation of baby boomers into born-again Christianity, the newer PCA brand is a far more sober milieu. Its music often includes 19th-century hymns and social action is a given.

“These people are involved in the real issues: AIDS, terrorism or the arts,” Mr. Powers said. “Reformed theology brings in a world view that is deep and comprehensive that allows people to connect the dots. When I look at a lot of other churches, there’s not a depth and breadth.”

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